The Value of Having a Dedicated Family Law Practitioner
The work of a family lawyer typically revolves around relationship breakdown. That doesn’t just mean divorce, although of course that’s part of it. A family lawyer will deal with the financial consequences of divorce and separation — the division of assets and the question of ongoing provision (maintenance) and what the arrangements should be for any children. Family lawyers also represent people who have lived together but are not married, and in such cases where there are children, we advise on what financial support may be provided by the parent who no longer lives with the family.
Importantly, and perhaps less well-known, is that family lawyers also help people plan and protect themselves and their families in the event that a relationship breaks down in the future. This might include advising on prenuptial or post-nuptial agreements, cohabitation agreements, and the manner in which assets such as property or businesses are owned during a marriage. It’s not unusual for parents to want to provide for their adult children before they get married or move in with a partner, in which case a family lawyer will work to ensure that certain assets remain in the family, especially where these have been gifted or inherited. Family lawyers also assist those who want to start a family and may be considering assisted fertility, surrogacy, or adoption to ensure that legal parenthood is secured.
Family courts in England and Wales have a wide discretion when it comes to dividing assets on divorce. Everything that each party owns, no matter where it came from and when, must be disclosed and taken into account. The court’s first consideration is the welfare of any minor children. Generally speaking, wealth generated during a marriage (“matrimonial assets”) will now be divided equally. Assets owned before the marriage or inherited by one person will often not be shared in the same way, but the court can and will invade if a party’s share of the matrimonial assets does not meet their financial needs and/or the needs of the children. Depending on how your finances are structured, this might mean that a court could make orders against business assets, trusts, or inherited wealth.
Nuptial agreements entered into before or after a marriage can limit the impact of this and provide more certainty for both parties. If such agreements are created willingly, without misrepresentation, fulfill certain criteria, and do not result in an unfair outcome, the courts will generally uphold them, so it’s very wise to consider this with your family lawyer. Such advice and/or agreements should also form part of your inheritance planning for passing wealth to future generations. It might not seem romantic to think about what will happen if your marriage doesn’t work out, but the unfortunate reality is that about 42% of marriages end in divorce. With subsequent unions the statistics are even worse.
Where a couple has international connections — perhaps they are foreign nationals or own property in different countries — relationship breakdown can be far more complex. One person might want to move abroad and take the children with them; there may be a dispute as to where the divorce and financial matters should be dealt with; or there can be difficulties enforcing orders against assets located abroad — sometimes with catastrophic consequences. The tax consequences of moving assets between jurisdictions can be significant; however, if specialist legal advice is taken before a relationship breaks down, the risks can be addressed.
Family solicitors do much more than just advise on family law. They need to have a good understanding of each individual client’s specific circumstances. For example, solicitors need to understand whichever business their client (and their client’s partner) is engaged in. They will have commercial knowledge and a grasp of corporate structures and trusts, pensions, and complex remuneration packages. International law experience and contacts around the world may also be necessary.
Each family’s case is different because every family is different, with their own history, personalities, and wishes for the future. The better your lawyer knows you, the more able they are to tailor their approach to your needs. They will also be able to spot issues before they become a problem and limit potential damage. Unexpected things happen, but when they do you will already have someone to whom you can turn, one you trust and who understands your situation.
What to Look for When Seeking a Family Law Practitioner
When choosing a family lawyer, there are various things to think about.
- What kind of lawyer do you want? Some family lawyers are trained in collaborative law, which is a particular way of reaching an agreement with a former partner through lawyer-supported negotiation that avoids going to court. There are also mediators and arbitrators among us who bring different skills and experience.
- Expertise: Within the area of family law there are lawyers who have particular specialisms, for example in farming cases, technical international disputes, or complex prenuptial agreements. Some have litigated cases in the highest courts.
- Geography: You will probably wish to meet your lawyer at least once. If there are court proceedings, you and your lawyer will usually be required to attend hearings, and it is often helpful if your lawyer knows the local court and judiciary.
- Cost: Do you need a lawyer based in the city who likely has high overheads and corresponding fees? In some situations, it will be appropriate, but in others this may not give you any additional benefit. The best lawyers in the country are not all in major economic hubs.
- Their team: Do they work within a team enabling the work to be done at a level and cost appropriate to the issues? Also, does the team interact closely with professional colleagues in other disciplines such as tax and trusts (at both international and domestic levels), property, corporate, and pensions to provide a complete and holistic service?
- Professional memberships/accreditations: Family lawyers who are members of an organization called Resolution have signed up to a code of practice to deal with family disputes in a civilized way.
- Reputation: You can look at what the legal directories say, which includes endorsement from other lawyers and clients. You may also have personal recommendations.
- Rapport: It’s essential that you get on with your lawyer and can have a good working relationship with them. You need to trust them and feel they understand and support you; any personality clash between you and your lawyer will not make your situation any easier. If you are looking for a lawyer at a traumatic time, you don’t necessarily want to have to tell your story more than once, but if you can face it, it’s not a bad idea to see more than one family lawyer before you decide who to instruct. However, bear in mind you should never choose one lawyer over another just because you prefer their advice: the best lawyers will give you a straight answer — even if they know it’s not what you want to hear.